A Year On – Riots, Olympics and Inspiration

Tottenham, London Aug 7th 2011

A year ago this week, as Londoners, we went  to bed amid  chaos, conflict and fear  in Croydon, Tottenham, Ealing, Hackney, Clapham as well as many other places throughout and beyond London. We woke up to the desolation and disbelief was something that shattered that self-assurance and confidence. Broken glass yes,  but also a break in that delicate social contract that exists to retain public order. We could see how narrow that ‘thin blue line’ can be. And it’s scary.

Riots and looting had spread bringing a wave of fear, confusion and anger with them that had flooded the city and beyond.

There were local initiatives to ‘rebuild’ communities, and much (too  much in my view) quick-fire speculation about causes and reasons which ended with much blame being placed and misplaced by those politicians and media junkies looking for instant answers. Answers were needed but sometimes it isn’t the first thing you think of that will provide the most learning.

It was a ‘youth’ problem we heard or ‘problem families’. I never really believed that. Firstly, the riots were not exclusively carried out by young people or by ‘poor people’  and blame needs to move beyond broad pasting of people based on background and income. If there is a problem (and I never really fall entirely for the ‘Broken Britain’ agenda) it is one that has to be shared through to those who lead our political and social culture that creates divisions and marginalised. But I’m not about explaining the riot phenomenon – academics who spend time researching rather than speculating are far better placed than me.  I’m more about explaining feelings.

It’s hard not to compare those feelings I had at the beginning of August 2011 to those I have now, in August 2012. I was scared, I was confused, I was also disenfranchised, I felt, by politicians spouting about  casting  blame  had no similarity to the reality that I was experiencing. If anything taught me about the detachment of politicians in their privileged ivory towers, it was their collective responses to those days and continued games of ‘divide and rule.

London 2012 Olympics

And this year, how do I feel? I have been carried away by the Olympics, I’ll admit it. I was beginning to feel the excitement as I went to see the Torch Relay and saw it was bringing a feeling of genuine joy. Although I’ve been privileged to attend a couple of events, I’ve also wholly taken part in the free events.

I am not blind to the problems that this country faces – we only need to reflect on the past year and the surmounting war on those who have the least and the games of ‘divide and rule’ which continue to be played but we have to take the positive focus on youth that can be garnished by successful sport but also participation by all and use it to counter some of the perceptions of blame – particularly blame of youth – that entered into general discourse.  These problems don’t go away for two weeks, they are still very much alive.

The feeling of pride and the happiness generated in London is about sport at the moment but it isn’t just sporting achievement that can bring these feelings of pride. It is about receiving support and encouragement to excel and to find the area in which you excel – whether that’s athletics, painting, writing or being a compassionate person no more or less – we need to find more ways to celebrate the positives and use these Games as a spring to motivate – not just in sport but beyond.

I’m going to use the example of Mo Farah, 10,000m gold medallist and his story of the support he received from a PE teacher, Alan Watkinson.

Mr Watkinson said: “If he was going to have an chance to progress, someone was going to have to take him under their wing – there were so many distractions that could get in the way.”

He entered Farah for a cross country course and finish second.A few weeks later he finished fourth in a county championship, despite not having spikes.

Soon afterwards Mr Watkinson told him he could run for Great Britain.

And if there’s a lesson to learn from this, I hope it is that. I hope the government and local authorities pick up on that. We have to find people to encourage and push us towards achievement. It doesn’t have to be sport and it doesn’t have to be world-class – but having someone who can mentor, guide and encourage is crucial. It’s not age-specific either. Doubts can emerge at any age and at different stages in life.

photos by Autr Films and Michael Hirst

The Olympics – An opening ceremony so good, Aidan Burley MP hated it

You know what? I’ve spent months being cynical about the Olympics, but I’m going to come straight out and say that Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony blew me away. By turns impressive, moving, funny and occasionally slightly deranged, the ceremony packed a broad range of all the different aspects of what it means to be British, from the Industrial Revolution to the landing of the Windrush.

I was expecting the initial scenes of a bucolic, Constable-esque England. I wasn’t expectieng the dancing tribute to the NHS, or James Bond to parachute in with the Queen, or Rowan Atkinson’s hilarious cameo as Mr Bean in an orchestra performing Chariots of Fire. Equally hilariously, reports came in on Twitter that the screening of the famous lesbian kiss on Brookside had resulted in Saudi TV inadvertently broadcasting a same-sex kiss for the first time in history. It’s an ill wind that blows no minds.

But it turns out somebody didn’t like all this. Halfway through the ceremony, Aidan Burley MP tweeted, “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?” To be followed later by, “Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!” Wow, who would have thought a guy who once hired a Nazi fancy dress costume would have a somewhat narrow view of nationhood?

Burley may have been the most publicised grinch at the Olympic party, but he wasn’t the only one. On Twitter, Toby Young complained that, “I feel like I’ve just watched a £27 million Party Political Broadcast for the Labour Party” The Telegraph’s James Delingpole claimed to like it, “apart from the weird NHS propaganda” while Harry Cole whinged, “Not even communist China were so brazen as to extoll their nationalised stranglehold on their country so blatantly.”

Or, to put it another way, Danny Boyle’s epic display of all things British has done an impressive job of annoying all the right people. He provided a complex tapestry that included not only the likes of Shakespeare and the Red Arrows, but also a diverse and multicultural nation, where difference can be celebrated rather than ignored or denigrated. And yes, a nation that values its healthcare system.

And if the likes of Aidan Burley don’t like it, maybe we can set up a tiny little parochial nation where he and his ilk can live unencumbered by any horror of meeting people who aren’t like them. Perhaps we could give them the island of St Kilda, or some other place that none of us are ever likely to want to go.

Olympics, Hope and the Dampening of Cynicism

I can be cynical grump when I so choose but ! can’t help feeling a bit of excitement about the Olympics though as they roll into town this week. I almost don’t want to. I know they are expensive and it’s a distraction from the government agenda which is forcing cuts on those who are least able to afford them.

I know that logically, but as a child and as an adult, I’ve always enjoyed ‘remote participation’ in the over-commercialised ‘greatest show on earth’ because despite the organisers, despite the sponsors, there are moments of humanity and hope that dig deeply.

I remember the day in 2005 when it was announced that the Olympics would be held in London. As a native Londoner, I was excited and pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t as cynical as I became because I wasn’t sure what it involved. I will though, forever link that day with the day that follows, the 7th July 2005 when the terrorist bombs exploded in the transport infrastructure in London, killing 52 people as well as the four perpetrators and injuring over 700 people and that doesn’t account for the mental scars the day left on many many more.

The happiness and excitement turned instantly to pain, fear and distress and the two events become almost linked in my mind.

So it took a long time for me to feel comfortable and feel happy about the circus coming to town again. I enjoy spectacles, I enjoy distractions, even commerce-laden ones and I can’t apologise for that. If I’m excited that the world is coming to my city, I only want for her to be able to show herself to her best. To enjoy it and enjoy myself.

It’s not ‘cool’ to be excited and I’m not blind to the poverty, distress and suffering that is happening in the city while she paints herself up and while we aren’t watching because I’m still working and will be every (work) day the games are on (with a one exception as I did grab some tickets).

I went out to see the Olympic Torch as it passes through London. I saw joy. I saw happiness and I saw kids getting really excited.

Is it worth the cost? Is it worth allowing this government to be painted in anything other than the true colours of pain and distress that they are explicitly handing to the nation? Probably not. On balance, I’d rather have a fairer society with income distributed to provide more to all. Is it worth giving Boris his moment in the sun? That hurts too, because I never for a moment think that Boris is a mayor for London – he is a mayor for the parts of London that will be likely to vote for him.

But these aren’t the choices I was given.  Am I going to pretend I don’t want the excitement, celebrations and joy which exists around me? No. I’m going to enjoy these few weeks that London is at the heart of the sporting world. I’m going to use the events to build conversations with the people I visit, draw on memories of previous events and celebrations and use the excitement and celebration that is finally beginning to settle in the city. I’m going to use the time to enjoy the other associated celebrations, events and displays taking place. I’m going to enjoy the summer and the city.

I love London and I love the people who share this city with me. I want everyone else to come to know what a great place we are and can be. I tried to be more cynical, I tried to balance the head and the heart, but eventually the excitement came.

Yes, it’s going to be harder to get to work and it’s going to be harder to get home. We don’t have the luxury of ‘working at home’ but we don’t really know what the effect will be on the day to day work life as a social worker in the heart of an Olympic city but I’m sure it’s a theme I’ll come back to before the party is over.

For now, I’m going to try and enjoy it.